WYLIE — The successes show up in the little things: the ride around the arena, the tight turns around the cones, even the gentle pats on a horse’s neck.
Military veterans who work with therapeutic horses find the benefits go well beyond their 90-minute classes. There’s the confidence that comes from learning a new skill. Anxiety often goes down with the repetitive steps of grooming and tacking. And the bond that forms with a horse is immeasurable.
“For a lot of veterans, it can be a struggle to admit that you’re having problems,” said Jeff Hensley, program counselor for the Hooves for Heroes program offered through Wylie-based Equest.
Equine therapy has a leg up over traditional counseling in an office because “it doesn’t really feel like counseling,” said Hensley, who served with the Navy for 21 years. “We’re having a pretty big impact on a lot of lives.”
The program, less than 2 years old, is at capacity. But that will change when Equest expands this fall into the new Texas Horse Park in southern Dallas. One of the biggest advantages is that site’s proximity to the Dallas veterans’ hospital.
Equest plans to start small in Dallas, focusing first on its offerings for veterans, Joan Cutler, the nonprofit’s program director, told The Dallas Morning News. Other programs will follow.
The cap on class size shouldn’t stop interested veterans from getting involved, though. Volunteers are always needed at Equest, which operates its Wylie center with more than 400 trained volunteers. Cutler said Equest found veterans who volunteer reap some of the same benefits riders do.
“A lot of them are just looking for somebody that they can relate to,” Cutler said. “This gives them a place where they can find those people.”
The volunteers working with the Hooves for Heroes program are either veterans or have relatives with military ties.
Classes are also structured around a meal — either dinner on Monday nights or breakfast on Thursday mornings — so there’s lots of time to chat in a friendly environment.
“That social element is very key to our program,” said Susannah Denney, the nonprofit’s veterans coordinator. That’s because veterans often feel isolated or struggle to reintegrate into civilian life.
The horses are well-suited for the therapy because they don’t have any hidden agenda.
“Forming a bond with that animal many times is the first step in allowing yourself to be emotionally vulnerable,” Hensley said.
A recent class had Army veteran Justin Feagin paired with a 20-year-old quarter horse named Suzie 2.
Feagin highly recommends the classes, which he said are especially well-suited for those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries.
“Working with the horses really makes you aware of how you’re feeling,” said Feagin, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and now lives in Melissa. “You gotta be calm to work with horses; otherwise, you’re not going to get a response from them.”
Hooves for Heroes isn’t just for recent veterans. Kurt Hughett of Denison served in the Army at Fort Hood and Fort Bliss for six years in the 1980s.
“You never really know how it affects you,” he said of military service.
His therapist recommended Hooves for Heroes. “It’s very relaxing, very soothing,” he said. “When you’re dealing with an animal that’s a lot larger than you are, it’s hard to get mad at it.”
Paul Raith, a 15-year volunteer at Equest, has worked with the program since its inception. He sees what working with horses can do.
Sometimes the change in veterans is gradual.
Other times, it’s like flipping a switch.
He points to one of the riders circling the arena with a big grin on her face. “That’s what it’s all about.”